Hagia

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque form the skyline of the old city in Istanbul (Reuters/Fatih Saribas)

Istanbul is a destination full of beautiful contradictions. In a city where East meets West, explore historical mosques by day and dance the night away in modern bars after dark. The world collides within the 100 square miles of this mesmerizing city.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said If the whole world were one country, Istanbul would be its capital, and in 2005, Newsweek called the city one of the coolest cities in the world. Both remain true today.

Istanbul was able to make a transition most cities have not, staying true to its history while evolving into a modern city.

The call to prayer echoes five times and day in the city that is 99.8% Islamic. Yet the city remains distinctively Mediterranean, rather than Middle Eastern. The city straddles both the European and Asian continents over the Bosphorus Bridge, but it's unlike any city in either; it is both familiar and foreign all at the same time.

Every introduction in Istanbul begins with a cup of tea. Take it! Take the time to slow down and get to know the locals; you'll come back with better stories than just what you heard on the tour.

The city is bursting with artistic talent and excited youth. In fact, the median age of the country is just 29. Within Istanbul it is easy to see the mesh of the modern and historical like a modern shopping mall next to the Grand Bazaar that plays a blend of traditional Sufi songs set to electronic beats.

The history of Istanbul is long and complex, which, in part, is responsible for creating the diversity in culture. Istanbul, although not currently the capital of Turkey, has served as the capital to the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman Empires.

Here's a look at the best spots in this ancient city:

Figure out the complex Turkish history at Hagia Sophia

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Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, located on the top of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus, greets every traveler with its enormous minarets and remarkable dome ceiling. In many ways, Hagia Sohia represents the contradictions within the city. The structure that stands today is actually the third church on the site. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople, the building was converted to a mosque, with Islamic features and the addition of four minarets. When the Republic of Turkey formed, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a museum, which preserves both sides of the history.  

Bargain for a deal at the Grand Bazaar

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Grand Bazaar (Reuters/Murad Sezar)

Get lost in a labyrinth of spices, smells, and scarfs in the Grand Bazaar. Vendors use catchy pick-up lines in every language in order to get you to turn around and laugh. Listen for lines like, Are you an Angel, because I'm Charlie. Remember to bring your bargaining skills here to snag the best deal.

Learn about Islamic culture in Turkey at Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

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Blue Mosque in Istanbul (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

Just a short park away from Hagia Sophia is Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque because of the elaborate wall paintings. Not only is this mosque a beautiful part of Turkish history, it also gives tourists a view inside a working Islamic mosque. Western tourists may be surprised that for a modern country, women pray at the back of the mosque in a separated area behind the men at the front and the tourists in the the middle. Remember to dress appropriately and use that new scarf to cover shoulders or other exposed areas.

Visit hookah bar

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Hookah bar in Istanbul (Creative Commons/laurabot)

Call it Hookah, hubbly-bubbly, nagrile (Turkish water-pipe) or whatever you want but definitely take the time to relax and smoke shisha when in Istanbul. The Tophane neighborhood in Beyo?lu has a row of outdoor hookah cafes. Lay back in bright-colored bean-bag-type chairs or deep-cushioned booths. The city recently banned smoking indoors, but the even better outdoor cafes remain.

Get a scrub down at a Turkish hammam

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Turkish hammam (Reuters/Osman Orsal)

A person's first Turkish bath is something they will never forget. An almost naked stranger takes a coarse mitten and scrubs you down literally from head to toe. This experience certainly is not for the shy, but it's pretty amazing after you stop worrying about being naked. The Cagogulu Hamam is said to be one of the 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Some say it's a rip off, but for most, it's a great introduction to hamams.

Listen to live Turkish Music

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Live Performance in Taksim (Katy Dutile)

Taksim, an area on the European side, is bustling 24 hours a day. Don't sleep in this area because it can be loud, but do go out at night here. Along Isikal Street and other side streets are outdoor taverns and rooftop bars where travelers and locals alike can listen to traditional Turkish music combined with pop beats.

Hop on a Princes' Island Ferry

Buyukada,

Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara off Istanbul (Reuters/Murad Sezer)

This ferry makes for a great day trip to both get away from the hustle of the city and to see the views from the Bosphorus without getting on one of the crowded cruises. The islands are filled with summer homes of the Turkish elite and offer swimming, biking, and hiking.